BASIS supporters really need to work on their basic reading skills


by David Safier

Supporters of BASIS charter schools really shouldn't be so touchy. When Tim Steller wrote a column that put BASIS' second place finish in the U.S. News & World Report national high school rankings in perspective, he was deluged with "How dare you?" comments at the end of the article. Steller made the same observations about University High, but he got few comments from those parents. I guess UHS folks are a more secure bunch than the BASIS Boosters. At worst, you can accuse Steller of praising the two schools with faint damns. Yes, both schools give a high quality education to great students, but maybe they don't deserve as much praise as they get based on their scores on dubious national rankings.

Why are the BASIS people so thin skinned? My take is, they've swallowed their own Legend whole, the one that says BASIS has created a model of excellence that other schools should follow. They ascribe to the line in that old John Ford western: "When the Legend becomes Fact, print the Legend." They're upset that Steller didn't print The Legend but stuck with The Facts instead: that BASIS provides a rigorous education for the academic elite, those who have both the intelligence and the motivation to keep up with the school's high expectations. The BASIS model can only be duplicated in other equally selective schools.

An op ed in today's Star responds to Steller's column. The author, Alex Swindle, went to UHS and currently teaches at BASIS, so he knows both schools from the inside, but the only way to describe his op ed is defensive. Shorter Swindle: Tim, you don't love and honor BASIS (and maybe UHS) nearly as much as you, and everyone else, should.

Some examples from Swindle's op ed.

[For Steller] to demean the work of the students and teachers at two of Tucson's best schools is unfair and unhelpful.

Demean? Really? Steller says BASIS and UHS are selective — that's true — and their U.S. News & Report rankings are based solely on AP courses and tests, which makes the ranking methodology highly questionable. The worst he does is question BASIS' reason for being so AP-heavy. Not very demeaning.

To say we aren't measuring our students' growth is unfair. At BASIS we hold our students to high standards and do everything within our power to help them reach those standards.

Steller commented that the U.S. News rankings' reliance on AP courses isn't the best way to measure student achievement, "and it's certainly not measuring how much students' performance improves at their school – a more precise indicator of a school's impact on its students." If I'm reading Steller correctly, he's saying, if students enter a school at 3 years below grade level and they're brought up to grade level, that's a major achievement. If BASIS students begin, say, a year or two above grade level and don't move much higher than that, it's reasonable to say the other school has a greater impact on its students and by that measure is more successful. Alex Swindle ignores that point and just says BASIS has high standards.

At BASIS, we take fifth-graders from a huge range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. It's true that we end up weeding out some students, but our graduating class is just as diverse as our fifth-graders. There's no selection based on race, income or intelligence; it's simply a matter of working hard.

Alex, Alex, Alex. When a BASIS class is three times as large in the 6th grade as it is in the 12th grade, that isn't "weeding out some students." That's a major thinning of the herd, until only one out of three students is left standing on graduation day. It may be true there's no selection based on race — who is so racist these days, they think Anglos are the naturally brighter than other ethnic groups? — or income — again, highly intelligent, motivated children from a poor or middle class family can hold their own with equally intelligent, motivated children from rich families. As for the students' innate intelligence, I'm not sure how Alex thinks he can measure that well enough to say it isn't a factor. If he has I.Q. scores for all his students (a questionable measure of intelligence but about all we have), maybe he can share them with the rest of us.

To give Swindle credit, he acknowledges other schools don't get as much recognition for the good work they do as they should. But if that's true, he should have no problem with Steller trying to shrink BASIS' oversized ego a bit. Here's how Steller ends his column:

I just wish there were a similar ranking or award that celebrates schools that start with students of any ability and takes them to a much higher level of achievement.

If a couple of schools in Tucson started winning that sort of praise, I'd stand and applaud.

Steller is willing to give BASIS its due if the definition of a successful school were broadened to include schools that succeed with a less select student body. I agree. I'm fine with including BASIS into a longer, more comprehensive list of successful schools. BASIS may do a good job giving a rigorous education to students who are willing and able to meet the school's rigor and expectations, but it's not a shining light that should be a beacon to other schools. That's claptrap. It's The Legend, not The Facts.


  1. I’ve had the same idea, swap out the entire staffs; principal and teachers, between a high income zipcode school and a lower income one. This simple experiment would put to rest all of this “no excuses” B.S. As for the BASIS/UHS thing, AP exams are going on right now and, as a UHS parent, it irritates me that BASIS pays their kids’ AP exam fees.

  2. Ah, Bess, your suggestion is a version of one of my dreams. Swap out a group of some of the best teachers from a high income area and a low income area, put them in their new classrooms and have them teach their new students. The teachers from the low income area would most likely begin by aiming too low, given their new students’ generally higher achievement level and motivation, but after awhile they’d adjust. Most likely, they’d go home whistling at the end of the day, feeling breezy and successful, motivated to learn more about their subject matter and how much they can expect from their students. But the teachers from the high income area would find the methods and expectations that worked with their former students simply don’t work with their new students. They would find problems they didn’t know existed in their previous classrooms. After a few weeks, they’d go home shaking, trying to figure out what they’ll do tomorrow and how they’ll make it work. Eventually, they would settle into the new reality, but there’s no way they would work miracles with their new students.

  3. OK, so here’s a challenge. Let’s have the Basis teachers come to my school for a week, and we’ll see if this model works with a students who attend a school with a high ELL population and a 95% free or reduced lunch rate.